Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Antigonish County councillors claimed liquor purchases on work trips

A Nova Scotia county has barred elected officials from claiming alcohol beverages, after CBC News requested details on councillor expenses.

Changes also stop politicians from claiming expenses for travelling companions and spouses

Antigonish County Warden Russell Boucher says policy has been changed to ban claims for alcohol and expenses for spouses. (YouTube)

A Nova Scotia community has banned elected officials from claiming alcoholic beverages following a CBC News request for details associated with councillors' expenses.

Unlike many other Nova Scotia municipalities, Antigonish County — until this spring — allowed councillors to bill hundreds of dollars for drinks while travelling for public business.

In one case, the Antigonish County warden and a councillor treated the warden's wife and a councillor from another area to a steak and seafood dinner at a restaurant that rotates over Niagara Falls.

Booze order

They ordered a bottle of wine, a single-malt scotch, a Bloody Caesar and two shots of the orange-flavoured liqueur Grand Marnier, receipts show.

The documents provided under freedom of information legislation include receipts for food and drink from two national conferences hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Vancouver and Niagara Falls.

In total, councillors in the northern region of the province claimed more than $470 in wine, beer and liquor charges. 

This food and beverage receipt was filed to Antigonish County for a dinner by the county's warden, a councillor and two guests. (Antigonish County)

Antigonish now 'appropriately accountable'

After releasing the expense claims to CBC News, the county stopped paying alcohol as well as expenses incurred by spouses or travelling companions. 

The freedom of information request "presents municipal council with an opportunity" to review the expense policy, a January memo to council from municipal clerk Glenn Horne said.

Three months later, the rules changed. 

In an email, Warden Russell Boucher said council "recognized that some practices permissible under the policy set in 1999 were inconsistent with today's public standards for public officials.

"The policy is now appropriately accountable and reflects practice and public expectations," he said.

Antigonish County delegates expensed a couple drinks while waiting to fly to Niagara in 2014. (Antigonish County)

Drinks at airport bar, casino

Warden Russell Boucher and Councillor Pierre Boucher flew to Niagara Falls on May 31, 2014, after charging a vodka and a whiskey at an airport bar to a county credit card.

Over the next few days, receipts show they had several dinners with drinks, along with close to $70 worth of alcoholic beverages expensed by the warden at the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort.

Antigonish County officials ate at the fine dining restaurant Don Francesco while attending the FCM in 2013. (Antigonish County)

Warden Boucher and four others went to the Vancouver FCM conference, where they expensed six bottles of wine over three evenings.

Elected officials from Antigonish County — which is separate from the Town of Antigonish — also expensed alcohol on travel within the Maritimes.

In April 2014, Warden Boucher and a delegation from the county attending a conference in Moncton, expensed three meals over three consecutive evenings at the Keg Steakhouse, the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse and the Overtime Sports Pub. 

The bills included $324 worth of alcohol.

Diana Brothers is the warden of Kings County. (Facebook)

'No problem paying'

Other municipalities, including the counties of Richmond and Guysborough and the town of Kentville, continue to allow claims for alcohol.

Guysborough Warden Vernon Pitts said claims for alcohol are allowed as long as councillors are on municipal business.

"For instance, if I was at the UNSM and Barry (Carroll), our CAO, and one of the councillors went out to dinner, are we opposed to ordering a bottle of wine or a glass of beer? I don't think so," Pitts said. 

"We'd have no problem paying that." 

'Only drink milk or Kool-Aid'

Receipts show that in 2014, the chief administrative officer of Guysborough spent $446.45 on a meal in Houston, Texas, while attending an oil and gas conference. The bill included $164 for three bottles of wine. 

Pitts said alcohol is a necessary expense when entertaining people who could bring important business to a community.

"You could say, 'Well, order anything you want to eat on the menu, but, by the way, you can only drink milk or Kool-Aid'."

The CAO of Richmond previously told CBC News he defends the practice when it comes to drumming up economic development money for his area.

"If people are professing to be shocked that sometimes liquor was consumed at those gatherings, I think they're being naive," Warren Olsen said. 

Calls for new policies

Many municipalities do specifically prohibit alcohol claims, including a Town of Lunenburg bylaw that dates back to 1988.

Some municipal officials were surprised to learn that it's still allowed elsewhere. 

"I don't think the public should be paying for alcohol," King's Municipality Warden Diana Brothers said. 

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood and Antigonish Town CAO Stephen Feist suggested municipal associations create a standardized policy on expenses.

"All municipalities are independent," Feist said. "But there should be more standard policies because it's what the public has come to expect from all of its political leaders."

With files from Susan Allen, Nicoletta Dini, Joan Weeks

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